- The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer
Daniel Cook's thought-provoking examination of the children's clothing industry in the United States sheds new light on the development of children's consumer culture in the twentieth century. Focusing on the years between 1917, when the children's wear industry launched its first trade journal, and the end of the baby boom in the early 1960s, Cook demonstrates how children's wear became increasingly age segmented as merchants and manufacturers began designing goods and retail spaces with children's needs and desires in mind. Cook identifies the 1930s as the major turning point when merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers of children's wear recognized children rather than mothers as their primary consumer target. This shift, Cook argues, marked the emergence of a new marketing perspective—what Cook provocatively terms "pediocularity"—that viewed "the world through children's eyes" instead of a mother's eyes (p. 6).
Cook provides an informative account of how children's wear merchandising became increasingly segmented and child focused. Before World War I merchandising of children's wear was rather limited. Only one factory specialized in children's clothes before 1890, and mass merchandisers often stocked children's clothing with adult clothing in various departments throughout the store. Clothing, in other words, was organized by type rather than age. As publisher of the trade journal Infants' Department, George Earnshaw played a pivotal role in pressing retailers to devote floor space and specially trained salesclerks to children's departments. This strategy first gained traction in infants' departments, which courted the loyalty of mothers by hosting talks about infant care and staging baby contests during the U.S. Children's Bureau's "Baby Week" campaigns. By the late 1920s, department stores and chains like Sears and Montgomery Ward began including children's departments that catered to school-age boys and girls. Most strikingly, in the 1930s children's clothing departments were divided and subdivided into a range of gender and age groupings.
Cook highlights a variety of factors that made manufacturers more attentive to the child's point of view in the 1930s. Faced with shrinking markets in the Depression, merchants and manufacturers likely saw greater age segmentation as an opportunity to expand demand. By recognizing that children possessed personal desires and stressing the importance of personality development, childrearing advice also helped legitimize the practice of giving children a greater say in their own clothing. In translating such advice, women's magazines encouraged parents to consider children's preferences and concerns about fitting in with their peers when selecting clothing. They also suggested that allowing children to choose their clothing helped children learn good taste. Children's popular culture also advanced child-focused merchandising. Child stars like Jane Withers, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney all either had their own clothing lines or endorsed children's wear. Cook in particular credits Shirley Temple, whose own stage dresses and retail line of clothing had a toddler "look," for helping to make the toddler-size style range for girls a viable new merchandising category.
Cook's most interesting and original chapters (the final two) detail the strategies [End Page 1101] merchants used to "appeal to the child as the decisive consumer" (p. 97). Retailers decorated stores in bold primary colors, lowered counters and mirrors to convenient child heights, and placed clothing within easy grasp. Some even put swings in their store and awarded boys subscriptions to American Boy when they made a purchase of $10 or more. Well-trained salesclerks treated children as equals and avoided any hint of condescension. Sensitive to teenagers' yearnings for autonomy, youthful salesclerks even sided with teens over their mothers. As industry segmentation accelerated in the 1940s and 1950s, retailers became savvier in appealing to preteen and teenage girls. Stores "institutionalized and appropriated the clique structure of white, middle-class teen girl peer society" by recruiting popular high school girls to serve on fashion boards...